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Virgin with the benefit of experience
Member Name: Larrabee
Advantages: Fast clean trains, helpful staff
Disadvantages: They can't control the weather!
Having lived in various parts of the UK and now travelling between them quite frequently, I have taken an awful lot of Virgin trains and feel fairly well qualified to write a review of their services! Of course, as there are so many variables that can affect your experience of a train journey its very hard to give you an accurate idea of what to expect exactly. I can hopefully give you a fair idea and a few hints and tips though.
There are a number of options for buying tickets, including over the phone, online and at the station either from a manned ticket office or an automated 'fast ticket' machine. I think its great that there are so many choices, as everyone will be able to find a way that suits them. Personally I tend to use the fast ticket machines at the station. They are a touch screen and the instructions are very easy to follow and quick. If you have a railcard, you can get your discount through any of these ticket outlets, but NOT if you wait until you're on the train!
I usually travel on the 'Pendolino' trains. These are the so called tilting trains, which are able to travel at high speeds by leaning into corners rather than slowing down for them. This is great as it reduces journey time substantially (London to Manchester is now just over 2 hours instead of 4) but I do find that the motion makes me a bit nauseous sometimes. Its harder to read due to the slight motion sickness so an ipod may be better than a book for entertainment!
The trains themselves are clean, and nice looking. First class is lovely with comfortable seats, plenty of legroom, tables, powerpoints, and a food service. However if like me you only ever get into first class when there's overcrowding and they declassify it, you'll want to know about standard class!
The seats are fairly comfortable, as a person of about average size I find I have enough space for my elbows and there is enough legroom that you won't get pins and needles after half an hour and I am able to cross my legs which I can't on some trains as they're fairly long! Each seat has either a fixed or fold down table with a space for a drink. There is a shelf above the seats which looks tiny but is deceptively so, you can actually fit a large backpack or small suitcase up there. There are luggage racks at various points along the carriages for bigger items, there are enough that you don't normally need to be too far away from your bags.
There is usually an onboard shop selling drinks, sandwiches and magazines, but it is very overpriced so I suggest that you buy anything you might need before you get on board. The shops do take debit or credit cards though so if you're stuck and out of options it is useful.
The reliability of the services is a bit of a mixed bag. Of course, its somewhat dependent on external factors such as weather or engineering works. When there aren't any of these factors I've generally found that the trains are on time and frequent. They can be very busy depending on the time and it is possible that you may have to stand if there is overcrowding. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about this, unless you have a seat reservation your ticket only buys you passage on the train, not the right to a seat! One tip, the first 'off peak' train each day (after about 9.45am and 6.45pm) will generally be very very busy as the tickets get cheaper after these times. If you can wait for the second off peak train you'll probably have a much more comfortable journey!
Customer service by Virgin has always been very good in my experience. The staff at the stations and on the trains are smartly dressed, easy to spot in their uniforms and very helpful and friendly. There are enough about that if you need help it isn't too hard to spot one quickly! Virgin have a very clear system for complaints and queries which you can find out about on the website and at the stations. On the one occasion I did have a problem that was caused by Virgin (heating broken in the middle of winter, very cold journey!) there were Virgin staff waiting on the platform handing out forms for getting a refund on the tickets. You will need to hang on to any tickets or receipts if you have a complaint or they can't do anything.
In summary, I have used Virgin Trains an awful lot over the years and the small number of problems have been massively overshadowed by the large number of comfortable, quick journeys with great staff that helped the process go smoothly. If you have a choice of train operator for your journey, Virgin are a great option.
Summary: We all love to complain about the trains in this country, Virgin make it harder!
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